Mammas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow up to Play Munchkin

Every parent should have a few bare-minimum goals: keep your kids off drugs, make sure they get a good education, and don’t let them play Munchkin games. I’ve already failed at the last of these, so I’m paying extra special attention to the other two.

I have yet to play anything from Steve Jackson Games that I thought was any good. The titles that clog the shelves—Munchkin, Chez Whatever, and those crummy dice games—are simply bad design, period.

The worst of these, by far, is the Munchkin series. I’d rather be strapped down for a 24-hour session of Sorry than sit through another session of Munchkin Bites.

The premise is faintly amusing. In RPG (role-playing game) slang, a “munchkin” is a player who just cares about combat and loot. Munchkin turns that approach into a card game, in which you begin as a Level 1 character with a goal of getting to Level 10. Each turn, you “kick in the door” to generate encounters, and then fight any creatures you encounter. Any items you’ve collected add points to your base level, so that a Level 1 character could fight at Level 12. If you encounter a monster, you compare this number against its number, and either you win, lose, or run away.

That’s it. That’s all you do. Over and over again, game without end, Amen.

The Mysterious Success of Munchkin

As far as I can tell, Munchkin has one thing going for it that makes it fly off the shelves: the art of John Kovalic. The cards and Kovalic’s cartoons are genuinely funny, and always worth a laugh for game fans, particularly those who recognize the clichés and pop culture references being skewered.

Readers who like this kind of humor can save themselves the irritation of bad gameplay and just check out Dork Tower. It’s cheaper, better, and doesn’t involve absurd level mechanics.

Look, any criticism I level at Munchkin will be dismissed by fans as “not getting it.” I can hear lonely Munchkin fans saying, “The gameplay itself is supposed to be a satire of gameplay conventions!”

No. Just … no. Satire is satire, and gameplay is gameplay. Gameplay mechanics are not a satirical medium.

Strip away the humor and you have a truly awful game. The gameplay is nothing but grinding monotony: turn over door card, add up attack value, compare it to monster, and either a) win, b) run away, or c) fail to run away and die. Die and everyone splits your stuff and you have to start over again. It’s maddening.

Fans of the series appreciate this madcap approach to gameplay, perhaps seeing it as more of a social lubricant than as an example of fine gamecraft.

For $25, I’d rather just buy a couple of cases of social lubricant and a pack of playing cards.

It Keeps Going, And Going, And Going…

I assumed Munchkin would vanish long ago, or simply find itself relegated to a small niche of dedicated gamers. Instead, it actually seems to be growing like some hideous fungoid mass, spinning off new editions and taking over shelf space that could be used by better games.

When Barnes & Noble and Borders started expanding their game offerings, I was pleased. It’s great to have a major retailer get behind Euro-titles and adult boardgaming. These are an ideal place for adult games to reach a mainstream audience.

But when you look at the displays, you see a whole section of Munchkin games, each selling for $25. That $25 is the key, since many of the good games cost $40 to $50. Combined with appealing art and packaging, as well as fun themes, that price point helps sell Munchkin to people who might have otherwise bought something that would spark a love of good gaming.

Instead, they get home and find … a box of cards, a die, and a rule sheet. The game is unplayable without counters or character sheets, so why doesn’t SJG games provide these? You have to go to their website and print them yourself. Is it that big an expense to add some character sheets and a few chits? This isn’t an inexpensive title from James Ernest. This is a $25 purchase!

Consumers opening a new game only to find a $25 box of cards are not going to be consumers who think fondly of other new and untried games. This makes Munchkin a kind of anti-game, actually driving people away from the genre.

I know Steve Jackson’s name has a certain resonance among old-timey gamers, but Car Wars and GURPS were a long time ago. Lately, Steve Jackson Games seems mostly committed to churning out endless editions of inferior product.

UPDATE: After I posted this, I received some good comments about Revolution by SJG, so there is hope!


3 thoughts on “Mammas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow up to Play Munchkin

  1. I think you are missing the point here. What makes Munchkin a game is that every other person playing can screw with you. You play as a happy ungeon going party, making deals for help to defeat monsters until you get to about level 6 or 7 and then it becomes a cutthroat game. Screw over your friends an partners to knock them down a notch (or kill them) and work toward killing something for that last level.

  2. I find this funny, because you seem to assume that nobody actually likes Munchkin, when clearly, a lot of people do.

    You also seem to think that all you do is draw combat cards, but there's a lot more to it. Potions offer a powerful one time bonus, leading to at least a small degree of strategy. There's asking for help, which can lead to some interesting plays (I once had an opponent buff up the monster I was fighting then offer to help me defeat it for some of the treasure, since he was the only one strong enough to do it) Classes offer a wide variety of ways to tweak the game (My brother once pumped up the monster he was fighting to a ridiculous level, then charmed it to get about 8 treasures when he was only level 1)

    Then of course, there's the mad rush to stop the level 9 guy from defeating that last monster.

    I have to wonder if you've ever really played the game, or if you just read the instructions, looked at the cards, and decided it was dumb.

  3. But I DID acknowledge that the game has supporters. I doubt very much, however, that they are typical mainstream gamers who will find the game in Borders and fall in love with it. It's a game for game fans.

    I even referred to Munchkin fans, and speculated about why they probably like it (for the humor and strong element of social interaction). My point is that the mechanics of the game are completely hosed. I just think it's a bad design, and find the production fairly shabby for the cost.

    You obviously like it. Great! I'm glad to know it's giving pleasure to people. Fun is good, and we need more of it in our world.

    However, in the couple dozen games I've played I found it to be amusing at first, and then simply annoying. (Yes, I have played it: why does everyone assume I “never played game X” just because they disagree with me? I've heard this comment, in different forms, for 20 years, and it still baffles me.)

    Just to be fair, I should point out that I have only played Munchkin Cthulhu and Munchkin Bites, plus booster sets. Perhaps there are some hidden charms in other versions?

    And I probably sound irritated about the blasted thing because I STILL have to play it. My son thinks it's hysterical, and often uses his pick on game night to torment me with it.

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